This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Ohio poet Jeff Gundy’s Abandoned Homeland is a collection of simple poems that feel rooted in their midwestern state of origin. These poems are of this place, a state that has more big cities than most but is carpeted primarily with farmland, a state with one of the highest population densities in the country but one where you never feel far from land and open space. This dichotomy between modern progress and rural simplicity, between academic enlightenment and the beauty and decay of nature is at the heart of Gundy’s collection.
The early poems in Abandoned Homeland are mostly pastoral, offering us the calming beauty of nature and the Ohio countryside before Gundy allows complexity to begin to intrude: the hardships of everyday life, the potential ennui of academia, the disconnection brought by technology, the strife of politics, and so on.
My garden’s going nowhere. Too much business, school business,
poetry business, driving for hours to read a few poems
and drink temperately with friendly near-strangers who
hand me their cards in the vain hope I might find them work.
– from “April with Garden and Guilt,” page 23
Gundy is at his best here when he draws the two halves of Ohio together into small metaphors of life, allowing the natural to stand in for the human and vice versa, as in “Contemplation with Acorns and Guitar” (page 28) when Gundy creates this simple image that leads us to look at the natural sources of our manmade wonders differently: “Not every tree has a guitar in it. But some of them do.” Or in this example from “Ode with Winter Sunshine, One Mind, Four Houses”:
The houses might be saying
We have ridden out another night,
and that seems strange and hopeful
when once again the streets are
passable if not clear, the walks
are passable if not clear, and a little man
in a long blue coat wanders by,
a little late as always, snug in his jeans
and boots and sweater, his mind
passable, passable if not clear.
– page 27
Gundy does write at points with a freedom of expressed opinion that exposes his privilege and makes me uncomfortable, and one could argue that too is a trademark of our state. He’s an older white man teaching at a respected small town university, and that comes with a few blind spots, which I imagine he’d acknowledge. There is a generosity of spirit at work in most of his poems that lays most concerns to rest.
Gundy’s poems in Abandoned Homeland are not high verse, are not lyrically extravagant. They find their voice in the simple humility of midwestern life and land. These are the poems of a man tugged in two directions and aware of it, and, I imagine, progressively more at peace with it. When he writes these lines in “Free Will in the Late Capitalist Era,” the angst hidden under the words does not belie the poet’s growing sense of contentment with where life in middle age has found him:
Who else will have such an easy
sweet time of it, tucked into this town like a child into bed,
free to leave any time I can afford it?
– page 56
Abandoned Homeland is a book of poems that knows where it’s from, and a reader who knows where he or she is from will recognize that in this book, whether that happens to be Ohio or not.